Vancouver welcomes electric cars, but is it too little, too late?
It’s a hot sunny day in late September and Danny Epp is standing in his backyard in Tsawwassen with a hose and sponge, wiping down the rear panel of his wife’s car. He steps back to admire his handiwork, watching the water bead on the gleaming surface of the bubble-shaped Dynasty IT.
I introduce myself, and he takes me around to the front of the car. He lifts the hood, and there’s virtually nothing inside: six car batteries, and behind them a simple electric motor—like what you might find if you took apart the electric fan in your bathroom, only a bit bigger. No hoses, no sparkplugs; no coolant, filters or dipsticks. The fully electric car is the model of simplicity: just plug it in overnight, and it’s good for about 60 km—well within the average daily commute.
“Want to go for a spin?” Epp asks. He slides into the driver’s seat and I join him on the passenger side. When he turns the key a green light flashes on the steering column, the only indication that the motor is engaged. A knob on the dashboard marks the car’s two gears: forward and backward. Epp turns the knob to the right, and the car inches forward.
As we glide down the driveway, the only sound is the crunch of gravel beneath the wheels. Epp turns onto the steep, windy road that will take us up the Tsawwassen bluff, and with a touch of the accelerator the car climbs the hill easily.
Epp’s little car would seem an obvious solution to Lower Mainland streets clogged with emission-spewing gas guzzlers. The Dynasty IT belongs to a class of car that was introduced to Canada in 2000, when Transport Canada defined a new vehicle category: low-speed electric cars that don’t have to meet all the safety requirements of bigger cars—no airbags, impact-absorbing bumpers or highway crash-testing. With a top legal speed of 40 km/h and a range limited to about 60 km, the low-speed electric car isn’t going to solve our oil dependence, but unlike fuel-cell or fully electric production-line cars from the big automakers, it’s here today. At about $19,000, it’s affordable, and it’s capable of instantly making a dramatic impact on urban environments.
Just don’t expect to see them on Lower Mainland streets in significant numbers anytime soon. While Epp happily cruises the streets of Tsawwassen, low-speed electric cars like his IT remain illegal in that municipality, as in all but two of the province’s 150 municipalities. Epp’s is one of only about 20 Dynasty ITs that were grandfathered when the province effectively banned the cars provincewide in June 2008, leaving it to individual municipalities to make exceptions if they choose to. And even though the City of Vancouver passed a bylaw on September 30 allowing the cars on city streets—joining Oak Bay on Vancouver Island—nobody’s celebrating. Not Epp, nor the community of advocates—many verging on fanatics—who have been fighting for more than a decade to bring the low-speed electric car to our streets.
While Vancouverites are now free to zip around their neighbourhoods, they can’t cross municipal boundaries. And because the Vancouver bylaw allows the cars to travel only on roads with speed limits up to 50 km/h, they can’t drive to or from downtown Vancouver, which is cut off from its surrounding neighbourhoods by bridges with speed limits of at least 60 km/h. (There’s talk of lowering the speed limit on the Burrard Bridge to 50 km/h just to accommodate low-speed electric cars, but that’s about as likely to win public approval as the failed 2005 motion to set one lane of the bridge aside for bicycle traffic.)
Danny Epp with a Dynasty IT
For Danny Epp, the Vancouver bylaw is a moot point anyway. Scattered around his backyard are seven ITs, the sole remains of Dynasty Electric Car Corp., which produced its last car in October 2007. Epp had joined Dynasty in 2006 as general manager after the company, founded in Kelowna in 1998, had moved to Delta after emerging from financial difficulty in 2000. When Epp came onboard in 2006, Dynasty was once again in financial trouble; when the company couldn’t raise the $10 million it would need to expand production, the task of liquidating Dynasty fell to Epp. In the spring of 2008, he oversaw the disassembly of the Delta manufacturing plant, and watched as its components were packed into 12 shipping containers and sent off to a new owner in Pakistan.
Although Dynasty was forced into liquidation just months before Vancouver would legalize the cars, Epp believes the little electric car was up against more than just bad timing, that it had been fighting an uphill battle during its entire existence. “Canada does not support this technology or this industry” he says with a sigh. “It is aggressively against it.”
Canada’s one other manufacturer of low-speed electric vehicles, ZENN Motor Company Inc. of St. Jerome, Quebec, is no more encouraged by Vancouver’s bylaw. “As a vehicle manufacturer, it’s not practical for us to enter that marketplace yet,” says company spokesperson Catherine Scrimgeour. “Technically, electric cars are legal in B.C., but because the province devolved responsibility to municipalities, it’s not practical for us to operate in the province until there’s a cluster of municipalities.”
There are encouraging signs that such a cluster could be forming. Burnaby, Vancouver’s biggest (and only, apart from New Westminster) neighbour reachable without traversing a bridge, was initially caught by surprise by the Vancouver bylaw, but quickly came on board. In late October, the City of Burnaby authorized city staff to prepare a bylaw allowing low-speed electric cars on its streets. The same city council resolution recommended forwarding a copy of a report recommending legalization of the vehicles to Translink and Metro Vancouver for consideration at a regional level.
The prognosis on Vancouver Island isn’t quite as optimistic. Tiny Oak Bay, bordered by the Strait of Georgia on one side and Victoria on the other, has shown little interest in expanding the footprint of the low-speed electric car. It declined to participate in a Capital Region District meeting in September convened specifically to investigate the possibility of coordinating a region-wide policy on low-speed electric cars. Epp, who attended the meeting, came away disheartened: “Maybe 40 percent of the people attending were in favour of allowing these vehicles on city streets,” Epp recalls. He explains that even among proponents, priorities and interests were so diverse that a consensus seemed unlikely.
How did it come to this? At the very moment when the low-speed electric car broke into mainstream acceptance with the Vancouver bylaw, the prospect of seeing these zero-emission cars zipping around our streets has never been more remote. The true significance of the momentous occasion when Vancouver opened its streets to the low-speed electric car lies buried in a tale of dreams and enterprise, success and failure, and even a whiff of conspiracy.
The Dynasty IT was forced into liquidation just
months before Vancouver would legalize the car.
When it was introduced in 2000, the low-speed vehicle was defined by Transport Canada as a four-wheel electric vehicle capable of attaining a minimum speed of 32 km/h, and with a maximum speed of 40 km/h. While the federal regulation allowed these cars to be manufactured and imported in Canada, it would be up to each province to determine how the cars could be driven on its roads.
In B.C., low-speed electric cars were included in the “slow-moving vehicle” class, which lumped them together with farm vehicles: they could travel up to 50 km/h on any road in the province, as long as they displayed flashing lights and a fluorescent safety triangle.
The classification was a compromise. In a summary of the deliberations leading to the 2000 amendment, Transport Canada describes receiving a submission from Dynasty, which “urgently wanted regulations enacted allowing [low-speed vehicles] to be licensed in Canada.” The feds had also heard from the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers’ Association, representing the big automakers; it had expressed “grave concern” with any regulatory proposal that would allow these cars on public roadways without meeting the same safety requirements as mainstream cars produced by the big automakers.
Following the 2000 amendment to Canada’s motor vehicle safety regulations, Dynasty produced the cars at its Delta manufacturing plant, although it remained mired in financial difficulty while turning out only about 40 a year. The company would produce a total of about 200 cars—only about 30 of which would be sold in B.C. The remainder were sold to the U.S. market.
Although it would come too late for ?Dynasty, which shut down operations in October 2007, the break that the low-speed electric car industry had been waiting for seemed to come in November 2007. On November 29, the B.C. Ministry of Transportation issued a press release under the headline, “Province Gives Green Light to Zero Emission Vehicles.” The release announces that the province “is moving forward with a pilot project to enable the broader use of zero emission electric vehicles across British Columbia,” and adds that new regulations “would allow the vehicles to travel without flashing lights and warning signage on certain roads with a maximum posted speed of 50 km/h.”
However, local proponents of the low-speed electric car had hardly finished celebrating when ominous news came from Transport Canada. In December 2007 it announced plans to reconsider its definition of the “low-speed vehicle” classification. The federal department now chose to “clarify” that its original intention with the 2000 regulation had been to allow the cars to operate “primarily within retirement or other planned, self-contained communities.”
Within a matter of months, the B.C. government would retract the good news it had trumpeted in November. In June 2008, the province enacted an amendment to provincial motor vehicle safety regulations that would ban the cars from roads with speed limits above 40 km/h throughout the province. The bad news came with a sweetener: the cars would no longer be required to display flashing lights and an orange safety triangle, and each municipality would have the authority to make an exception to the 40 km/h speed-limit restriction. But effective immediately, they would be illegal on any street in the province with a speed limit over 40 km/h.
Asked to explain the apparent contradiction between his November 2007 announcement that these cars would be welcome on roads throughout the province with speed limits up to 50 km/h, B.C. Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon ducked responsibility, citing safety concerns: “I am told by some people who know a lot more and think a lot more about the safety issues, that if you put a vehicle out there and just allow it open use on any 50-km street throughout the province, that you are going to create situations where there are going to be accidents that could result in some pretty significant injuries or fatalities,” he told Granville.
And, he added, his hands were tied; taking responsibility for putting these cars on streets throughout the province would be the kiss of death for his political career. “I promise you as someone who has been in public life now for almost eight years,” he said, “that the moment something like that happens and someone is killed, everyone will be running to my door and saying, ‘How could you have let these vehicles, just unimpeded, be driving all over the place when they didn’t have those safety standards, Minister? How dare you have done this?’”
(The government of Quebec had no such reservations: in July 2008 that province announced it would launch a three-year pilot program that would allow low-speed electric vehicles to travel on public roads throughout the province with a speed limit up to 50 km/h, although they must remain in the right-hand lane and display warning signage.)
Who pulled the plug? Transportation Minister
Kevin Falcon (R) with ElectricCarBC’s Brad
Ackerman and a GEM electric car.
Brad Ackerman has a very different story to tell than Danny Epp’s, a story that sheds some light on Falcon’s sudden involvement in the low-speed vehicle cause.
Ackerman, the president of Surrey-based Direct Medical Supplies Inc., is a relative newcomer to low-speed electric cars. He founded ElectricCarBC in 2006, and has since secured exclusive Canadian rights to distribute the GEM, a low-speed electric vehicle manufactured in Fargo, North Dakota, by Global Electric Motorcars, a subsidiary of Chrysler. ElectricCarBC began selling GEM vehicles in B.C. in February 2008.
For Ackerman, the low-speed electric car has nothing to do with energy independence, or visions of emission-free vehicles zipping around city streets. It’s a business opportunity, albeit one with significant green benefits. He sees plenty of potential in the kind of secluded communities described in Transport Canada’s 2007 “clarification,” but has no expectation of seeing the vehicles on city streets.
Ackerman has sold about 20 GEMs to date in B.C. Customers include BC Ferries, which bought five; Predator Ridge resort in Vernon, which bought two; and individuals living in secluded Gulf Island and Vancouver Island communities.
Ackerman believes the real potential lies in contracts with governments and other agencies mandated to lower their greenhouse-gas emissions. A city works yard, a provincial ferry terminal, a public park, a Wal-Mart warehouse: he believes all are ideal candidates for low-speed electric vehicles.
Ackerman didn’t turn his attention to electric cars until 2006, when his three daughters confronted him and asked what he planned to do with the family business, which supplies Veterans Affairs Canada with electric wheelchairs and scooters. “They didn’t want to do medical stuff,” Ackerman recalls. “I told them, why don’t you look into what we can do? They came back and said, ‘Let’s take a look at these cars.’” So Ackerman called GEM in North ?Dakota, and found that it had no distribution in B.C., because of the requirement that they be treated like farm vehicles.
Ackerman called the B.C. Ministry of Transportation asking for an explanation, and reports receiving an encouraging response. He ?was passed to bureaucrats at the administrative level, who suggested he call Ottawa for clarification of the vehicle classification permitting these ???vehicles to be sold in Canada.
“I just wanted to know the regulations,” Ackerman explains. “I phoned Transport ?Canada and got some government bureaucrat back east who thought I was nuts. ‘Are you a businessman?’ he said. ‘Why would you do this? This will never be!’ This was this bureaucrat in Transport Canada telling me I should just save my money, and don’t be stupid.”
The response only served to pique Ackerman’s interest, so he ?decided to fly to North Dakota for a first-hand look at the cars in question, and recalls being treated like a visiting dignitary.
After being feted by his Fargo hosts, Ackerman returned to B.C. and called the Ministry of Transportation again. This time he was granted direct access to Minister Falcon. “I don’t know if I caught him at just the right time,” Ackerman recalls, “but from that moment on, the stars started aligning.”
Falcon demanded an in-person demonstration, and Ackerman and his daughter Hayley scrambled to organize one at Surrey’s Hazelmere golf course in February 2007. Ackerman and his daughter cobbled together an impromptu display on the golf course, and waited nervously. “Around the corner comes the entourage,” Ackerman recalls. “Falcon looked like a rock star; he had his long trench coat on, he’s got his sunglasses on, he comes around the corner and he’s got five guys around him, and they’re all moving fast. They’re coming down toward us, and I’m looking at Hayley going, ‘Holy shit!’”
Ackerman had been told he would be granted 20 minutes of the minister’s time, which he considered quite a coup. “Forty-five minutes later, he’s jumping in this car with Hayley, and they’re blasting off into the golf course,” he recalls.
Ackerman says that during the drive with Hayley, Falcon expressed his enthusiasm for the car, but Hayley explained that ElectricCarBC couldn’t bring the cars into the province because nobody would buy them as long as they were treated as farm vehicles. Ackerman says Falcon returned from the test drive converted to the cause: “He stands on the steps and says to his staff, to his deputy minister, ‘This is what we need. We have got to do this. I want you to fast-track this. Let’s do it.’ And he’s gone.”
The November 2007 press release followed, in which Falcon announced the province planned to welcome low-speed electric cars across the province. The following month Transport Canada “clarified” its vehicle classification, recommending that the vehicles be limited to closed communities; then, in June 2008, the Province would amend B.C.’s Motor Vehicle Act safety regulations to remove low-speed electric vehicles from the farm-vehicle category – but at the same time banning them from any street in the province with a speed limit above 40 km/h.
For Ackerman the changes to provincial and municipal regulations were a vindication of his decision to get into the business of ?low-speed electric vehicles. He attributes it more to lucky timing than astute business planning. “You’ve got guys who have been doing this for 15 or 20 years, guys who have taken serious flak and been scorned for years,” he says. “I came along at absolutely the right time; it just happened around me.”
For Danny Epp, the low-speed electric car wasn’t so much a business proposition as a cause. Yes, there’s likely a market for these vehicles in retirement communities, university campuses and public parks. But that’s not what spurred Epp to abandon his comfortable retirement in an attempt to resurrect Dynasty. He and dozens of others were inspired by a vision of city streets teeming with silent, zero-emission commuter cars.
For example, there’s Denis Lang, who for four years has been trying to bring low-speed electric cars to the Lower Mainland as a distributor under the banner Lang Motors. A tireless promoter of the cause, Lang has been a thorn in the side of local politicians, but to date he has nothing to show for his efforts: although he claims a “relationship” with ZENN in Quebec, Lang Motors doesn’t have an office, a showroom, or even a website.
To Lang, citing safety concerns as justification for banning the cars is a smoke screen. Referring to the federal minister of transport, Lang says, “It started with Lawrence Cannon in Ottawa. He and Kevin Falcon took a conscious decision to instill fear in the tribe, to say they’re unsafe. But that’s bogus.” Lang refers repeatedly to “peeling the onion,” but when pressed is unable to specify what he believes is at the core of efforts to discredit the low-speed electric car. He mentions government, unions, newspapers, and even Princess Diana (whose death he points to as proof that fully crash-tested cars with all the safety features are no guarantee of safety).
Don Chandler is an equally adamant proponent of low-speed electric cars, but offers a more sober perspective. The president of the Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association scoffs at the 2007 flip-flop by Transport Canada to revise its classification of the low-speed electric vehicle. “To come back and say, ‘We really meant they should be limited to campuses and retirement communities’—that’s bogus.” But when asked if there’s a conspiracy behind attempts to keep the vehicles off city streets, Chandler sighs in resignation. “There’s no conspiracy,” he says wearily. “It’s a government boondoggle as much as anything.”
Today Denis Lang has burned through his life savings in his personal crusade to bring electric cars to Lower Mainland streets. Back in Tsawwassen, Danny Epp is clearing out the last remaining Dynasty ITs at fire-sale prices. Meanwhile, in South Surrey Brad Ackerman is ramping up marketing for ElectricCarBC in anticipation of a flood of orders. He dismisses the suggestion of any conspiracy to keep electric cars off Lower Mainland streets. The discussion is moot, he says, since the major automakers are poised to introduce fully crash-tested, high-speed electric cars within a year two. “Fully electric cars are coming,” Ackerman says. “The low-speed vehicle isn’t ever going to be a player.”
Was it a conspiracy that killed the electric car in Canada? Some will say so. But more likely, it was just an idea whose time has come and gone.